Mike Yarish/FOX
By James Poniewozik
March 23, 2015

Spoilers from the series finale of Glee follow:

The beautiful thing about high-school TV series is that they reproduce, in accelerated form, the cycle of life. In three or four years a group of characters is “born,” grows, matures and passes from its world. If the show lasts longer than that (and isn’t continued at a conveniently located nearby college), then the story adds another generation of younger faces. The underlying premise of a high school show like Glee is that cycles repeat. Much as you think your story is unique, after you pass there will be a whole new set of stories just like it. We have always been at war with Vocal Adrenaline.

Glee’s finale, however, was for the show’s old-timers: the original cast (with the sad exception of Cory Monteith) and the fans who may or may not have stuck with the show beyond its first seasons. However many twists the show went through in its later years, the finale’s first hour, “2009,” was a reminder of where it started: as a story, equal parts hopeful and bittersweet, of small-town students and teachers wanting something more than what they had.

Making the first half of a finale essentially an alternative version of the show’s own pilot–which remains one of the best TV pilots of the last decade–was an ingenious move, sweet and nostalgic and tearjerking. We saw Rachel once again as a trying-to-hard achiever; a tentative Kurt, finding a way out of his basement; Mr. Schu, trying to back his crappy car out of the dead-end alley of his life. The reprise of “Don’t Stop Believin'” was inevitable but still devastating. We had the return of Mike O’Malley, with his grounded, complex portrayal of Burt Hummel; and seeing the embryonic friendship-rivalry between Kurt and Rachel singing “Popular” from Wicked recalled one of the series’ high points, their moving, heartbreaking sing-off on “Defying Gravity” in season one’s “Wheels.”

As someone who reviewed Glee regularly its first few seasons, and loved the show’s transcendent moments for all its inconsistencies and iTunes-driven excesses, it was a well-earned love letter. But it was also a reminder of the potential that the series once had and that it only intermittently lived up to.

Glee began as a show about losers, outcasts, the wretched, slushie-drenched refuse of high school. As “2009” reminded us, the most important thing the New Directions got from glee club was not a trophy or a career but a sense of belonging: “We should look back on our time here and be proud of what we did and who we included.”

Inclusion was central to Glee, and that was, as much as the music, what made it of its time. Glee’s pilot aired in May 2009. The United States had just elected a black President; same-sex marriage was legal in only three states. In its top-to-bottom diversity, and especially its attention to LGBTQ characters, it was one of the emblematic shows of its time socially. It wasn’t flawless in this way more than any other; it could be offensive intentionally and unintentionally. But it spoke to the moment by being about difference. Everyone was an outsider, united by hormones, dreams and love of pop music.

One of Glee’s great themes was the power and danger of dreams. At its best, the show balanced the romantic idea of shooting for stardom with the fear of knowing that it doesn’t always work out, that you might not be good or lucky enough, that at some point you hit up against your limits. Losing Monteith to an early death in 2013 was a blow, because it cut out one of the legs from Glee’s long-running story: not just Finn and Rachel’s romance, but Finn’s fear of ending up a “Lima loser,” that high school really might have been his peak.

In any case, if the first hour of the Glee finale was a hat tip to what Glee once was, the second, “Dreams Come True,” was mostly an affirmation of what it became: a more fantastical, outsized, upbeat version of the show, which ended, for the most part with everyone getting just about everything they wanted.

So Kurt and Blaine are in New York, still together, starring in “the first LGBTQ production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and having a baby with Rachel as their surrogate. Rachel, in turn, is also in Manhattan, winning a Tony Award. (And married to Jessie St. James? OK. My congratulations to their ‘shippers, whoever you are.) Mercedes is an international recording star. Mr. Schu is not only principal but has essentially remade the American educational system. Artie is a film director and Tina his star. Sue Sylvester is, somehow, the vice president to just-re-elected Jeb Bush. (And yet closed things out with a speech praising arts education, the likes of which I do not expect to hear from the podium at next year’s RNC.)

Curiously, the one character who best captured the season-one theme of reconciling big dreams with small ones was not around for Glee’s beginning: Sam, who essentially ended up inheriting the Finn Hudson role. It’s Sam, the kid from a financially strapped family, who ends up deciding that chasing fame won’t make him happy, and who reminds his New Directions group of a philosophy that powered some of Glee’s most emotionally true episodes: “If we want to be great, we need to be able to sing about hurt and loss.”

His students’ reaction to that line is to suggest singing Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”–which is probably a shout-out to Overstreet’s father having written that song, but is also emblematic of how, in the long run, Glee went for the crowd-pleasing over the bittersweet. Obviously, Glee is not the only show to go all-in on the happy endings; see the recent finale of Parks and Recreation. And given the show’s sense of mission–toward bullied kids, outsider kids, kids without privileges–maybe it was inevitable.

But it made for a strange contrast in the show’s last moments. In her valedictory speech, Sue tells us she once thought that encouraging kids to dream was cruel and useless, because the world is full of disappointment. Which, of course, it is, even if not only disappointment. If Sue was wrong back then, it’s because there’s a value in dreaming for all of us, whether we realize those dreams or not.

That idea has been a theme of some of Glee’s best episodes. (Think of season one’s “Dream On,” in which Artie imagines escaping his wheelchair, something he must eventually realize won’t happen.) The finale of Glee made the case, emotionally and passionately, that it’s worth it to dream because–as both Rachel and Will said in so many words–“dreams come true.” It’s an important message, powerful, and–considering the young audience Glee speaks to–not one to cynically dismiss.

But what was missing was another message, which Glee also used to make powerfully: that dreams don’t all come true, and yet they’re worth having anyway. Just as the arts are good even for kids who won’t end up on Broadway, dreams expand your sense of who you can be, even if you’ll never give an acceptance speech on national TV.

Yet I’ll miss the memory of Glee no matter what. In the end, I teared up at the last performance, as it brought back characters major and minor. (Farewell, Sugar!) That’s what Glee always did: it could frustrate me with its stories, execution and cartoonishness—and then open up a firehose of musical emotion and, at least for a few minutes, everything was forgotten.

Glee began with a ton of potential. It fulfilled it occasionally, squandered it often, and every once in a while, delivered moments of transcendence. To be a Glee fan was to love its flashes of brilliance despite its stretches of disappointment. To paraphrase the final inscription on the Finn Hudson Memorial Auditorium, it was a show to appreciate for what it should be, what it could be, and at its best, for what it was.

Read next: What Glee Club Looked Like 60 Years Before Glee

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